Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart had an open lane for an easy fast-break basket. Then he unnecessarily moved his back and flubbed a layup behind the ball.
A minute later, he had the ball again and hit an acrobatic circus shot from the baseline behind the backboard. He drew a foul, too.
That was the Marcus Smart Experience in a nutshell on Thursday night: sometimes ugly, sometimes entertaining, always impactful. In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Smart had 24 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists in a game dominated by the Celtics, 127-102, to tie the best-of-seven series. He was the only turnover in one of the best playoff performances of his career.
This season has seen a remarkable shift of continuity for the 28-year-old Smart: there’s a lot less ugly. He’s emerged as a stable, reliable point guard who can run more efficiently than Boston’s offense, even as his efforts on the other end of the floor – he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year – draw the most attention.
Smart missed the first game of the series on Tuesday because of a foot sprain, and his absence was evident. The Celtics collapsed in the third quarter, when Smart’s talents calmed down the offense and anchoring the defense could have changed the game.
Right from the opening tip on Thursday, Smart affected the game. The Celtics first scored off a difficult cross-court pass from Smart to shooting guard Jaylen Brown. Smart immediately followed that with a harder-than-it-looked alley-oop to center Robert Williams III.
In the first half, though, Smart shot a dismal 2 for 11 from the field. For most players, that would mean they were having a bad game. But Smart was one of the best players on the court, because of his seven assists and zero turnovers. The Celtics led by 25 at halftime, and they had outscored the Heat by 26 points with Smart on the floor.
“I’m not the type of coach that wants to call every play down,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “I leave it in his hands, and he usually makes the right decision. “
Smart didn’t enjoy the same kind of trust earlier in his career. In his NBA journey of the past seven years, with all Boston, Smart was known as a stalwart defensive player with a penchant for throwing up bad shots early in the shot clock and making ill-advised passes. He was also, for the most part, a poor shooter from the 3-point range. Smart had other attributes that made him a fan favorite, however, as his willingness to constantly dive to the floor for loose balls.
This year, despite his perceived offensive limitations, Smart was handed the keys to the Celtics offense for the first time. It was a risky decision. Smart has never been a starting point guard for an entire season. He was never even a full-time starter until the 2020-21 season. He had played behind star point guards like Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas, two former All-Stars who made their living as scorers. But Walker’s injuries last year gave Smart a chance to get a taste of the main point guard.
Smart initially struggled to adjust to its new role, as did the rest of the Celtics. In his first 50 games this season, Smart averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists. Boston’s offense is often seen stuck in the mud. After a November loss to the Chicago Bulls, Smart incurred the ire of his teammates when he publicly criticized the two best players on the team, Brown and Jayson Tatum, for not passing the ball more. Smart’s underwhelming point guard plays to Boston’s lackadaisical 25-25 start.
But then came the turnaround. In Smart’s final 21 games of the regular season, he averaged 13.2 points and 7.1 assists on 43.2 percent shooting. He also morphed into a more reliable shooter. While there were certainly other factors, Smart’s improvement coincided with the Celtics’ surge from the fringe playoff team to the NBA Finals contender. Tatum said Thursday that Smart had given the Celtics “another guy who can handle the ball under pressure and get us organized and get us in the position we need.”
His strong playmaking has carried over into the playoffs. In the first round against the Nets, Smart averaged 16.5 points and 7 assists in Boston’s four-game sweep. Against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, Smart averaged 14 points and 5.7 assists, while shooting 39.4 percent from behind the 3-point line.
“Being the point guard that I am, I take a lot of pressure off our guys so they don’t have to try to force it as much as they can who they are,” Smart said after Thursday’s game.
This is all while Smart has often been tasked with guarding the opposition’s best players. In the first round, they were Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He followed that up by switching between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday in the second round. Against Miami, Smart was asked to try to slow down Jimmy Butler on Thursday night.
Smart has consistently found himself rescuing the Celtics with his offense as well as his defense. When the Heat were making a third-quarter run in Game 2, it was Smart who took it upon himself to stop it. In addition to his Circus shot over the backboard, Smart hit multiple 3s to stop the bleeding. He scored 11 points in the quarter, including the highlight of the game. The Heat had a cut to 17 and the Miami crowd was suddenly re-engaged. Smart dribbled the ball up, bounced a crossover between his legs, causing Heat forward Max Strus to tumble backward to the floor. As he scrambled to his feet, Smart calmly stepped forward and made a free-throw line jumper.
That was the new Marcus Smart Experience. Undisturbed under pressure. Reliable. And still entertaining.
“That’s what I got drafted here to do, and I just waited my turn,” Smart said. “And I’m grateful to be in this situation and have the opportunity to go out and show what I can do. And I think everybody in the organization – in the world – has seen what I can do at that point guard position. “